Opening night of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s Winter Series at the Harris Theater last night marked the first time a U.S. company has presented the work of Swedish master choreographer Mats Ek. Well-known in Europe for his theatrical creations for stage and film, Ek has worked with acclaimed dancers like Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Now, with the help of dancers Ana Laguna and Mariko Aoyama, he takes our very own Hubbard Street dancers to new, extraordinary heights in his 2009 work Casi-Casa. A mash-up of two of his previous works, Appartement and Fluke, Casi was originally created for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba in 2009. Also on the program, Aszure Barton’s grand Untouched and two works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.
Although last on the evening’s program, Ek’s Casi is what everyone came to see. Even founder Lou Conte was there to witness his company make history. And make history they did, for once they raised the bar for themselves, the audience, the city and the country by excelling in this work, they can never go back. The cast of 12 dancers was stellar, but it was the staging and choreography that transfixed. Casi-Casa was stunning, ugly, casual, urgent, funny, human, disturbing and wonderful. Ek’s way of taking a mundane gesture or activity and turning it into something alternately beautiful, endearing and disgusting is true brilliance. With a cast of misfit characters like TV Man, Vacuum Woman, Stove Couple and Door Couple, the 40-minute piece flies by and leaves you wondering just what the hell happened. No, really…WTF just happened? Poking, sniffing, sighing, spitting, grabbing and whistling mix easily with insanely difficult, breathtaking dancing set to a score as schizophrenic as the characters. Vacuum cleaner-wielding women dance an OCD-frenzied jig, a couple struggles to stay together while tragedy roasts in an oven, and a man makes being a couch potato an art form. The work has everything you never thought you’d see on stage in a dance and then some. There is a sexual undercurrent throughout – a hand to the breast, a foot to the crotch, a groping embrace – that is sometimes nonchalant, purposeful, sad and almost crude. One of the most beautiful moments was a delicate, loving duet between Jesse Bechard and David Schultz. A section with no dancing had yellow and black caution tape zig-zagged across the stage as Hitchcockianly dangerous music blared as if to say, what happens in between these walls should not be seen. But Ek lets us look anyway.
Barton’s Untouched is a beautiful work that brilliantly showcases these dancers talents. Originally created on Hubbard Street in 2010, Barton incorporated bits of the dancers personalities into the movement. Even though a few of the performers have changed, the delicate intimacy of the gestures remain, punctuated by strong technique and creative partnering. With a lush red curtain pulled back on stage right as a backdrop and an almost formal informality to the structure, it is reminiscent of Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence, but on LSD. It’s just a little off. Where Liang’s duets are pristine with a feminine sense of longing, Barton’s transforms the women – Ana Lopez and Kellie Epperheimer – into wounded birds seeking freedom. Where Liang works within the structured lines of Victorian court dances, Barton takes that framework and alters it with syncopation and weight. Unexpected moments of impatience – a fast hip bounce, a dancer frantically running in place – dot the more serene essence of the dance. The dancers are at home in this piece. Plus, anything that begins with the gorgeous Meredith Dincolo in a floor length dress is assured to be spectacular.
In between Barton and Ek was a suite of dances by Cerrudo. Both have his penchant for dark lighting and mood, but to different ends. Blanco, a study in minimalist movement for four women, and PACOPEPEPLUTO, a tongue-in-cheek romp for three men to Dean Martin songs, highlight the rising choreographer’s serious and light sides. Both used similar movement vocabulary with results at the opposite ends of the dance spectrum. The audience seemed in awe of the raw physical beauty of the women, but the charming men – Johnny McMillan, Schultz and Pablo Piantino – captured their hearts wearing nothing but dance belts. Recently named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40″ list, Cerrudo shows what he can do with just music, lighting and bodies. While all the dancers deserve high praise, Cerrudo gets a special mention. With his busy schedule traveling the world setting his work, he hasn’t graced the Harris stage – aside from choreographic bows – since last March. He showed that he still has the chops to hang with and stand out in this amazing group of dancers. Bravo!
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Winter Series runs through Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. For a 20% discount on tickets use the code: CASI at www.hubbardstreetdance.com/winter.